Out of Africa: a new model for academic computer science

Newly-minted PhDs in computer science flock to Silicon Valley or other information-technology centers around the world. John Quinn had a different idea of how to pursue a scientific career. A Scot from Inverness, Quinn received his doctorate in computational analysis from the University of Edinburgh last year. His specialty is how computers recognize patterns.

Concerned about the shortage of computer professors with PhDs at African universities, Quinn decided to join the faculty of one, forgoing a position at a university in Britain. After a brief tour, Quinn, who is 28 years old, chose the Computer and Information Technology department of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Makerere is in the forefront of a movement to improve computer science and electrical engineering departments in Africa. One part of the strategy is to attract talent from technologically advanced societies. The university attracted Quinn with a salary that approaches what he''d earn as a new faculty in Europe and a challenging teaching load that includes contributing to a new graduate program.

''In CS, Makerere is becoming a serious competitor with South African universities,'' generally considered to be the strongest in the region, Quinn says.

''The program runs with great energy and optimism,'' Quinn adds. Faculty camaraderie is high. Most gather daily for a 1 pm lunch. About a dozen of the professors hold a doctorate; the remaining 40-50 instructors hold only master''s degrees or less. ''The environment is convivial,'' he says.

To my knowledge, Quinn was the only European holder to obtain a new CS doctorate who then migrated to Africa to teach. He arrived in Kampala last September. ''I''ve been delighted,'' he says. ''It just doesn''t occur to computer academics to come to Africa to teach. Africa isn''t on the map.''

Quinn is bullish that Makerere University''s Computer and Information Technology department will make Kampala one possible destination for other graduates of doctoral CS programs in Europe and the U.S. Quinn has already written two papers while at Makerere, one of which will be published in April, he says,. In IEEE''s International Conference on Acoustics. The paper is about how computers drown out, or mask, signals.

Besides his own research in pattern recognition, Quinn is trying to stimulate the dozen graduate students he mentors to craft their own research agendas. He expects to spend at least another two years at Makerere.

Quinn advises other CS academics in North America and Europe -- both inexperienced and veterans '' to consider a stretch of teaching in sub-Saharan Africa. His advice?

''Be prepared to deal with isolation,'' especially while doing research, he says. He says that a taste for the style and serendipity of African life is also a plus.


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